Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Favorite winter gear

Bella Vista Trail
Early this morning, Beat, Liehann and I rallied for a mountain bike ride before work. For me, it was a sluggish but beautiful ride. Every time I try to exercise first thing in the morning, it seems to take me at least two hours to warm up. Plus, my legs still felt mostly dead after Sunday's 50K run. But it was the most fantastic morning — calm, clear above the valley haze, and warm. Temperatures started at 40 degrees and inched close to 60 before we were done. It's the kind of beautiful, idyllic outing that could make a person forget about cold weather and winter for good — and yet I still think about winter, constantly. Recently, I've received several e-mails and questions about my planned gear for the Susitna 100. It made me think about a few unconventional items that I've discovered after years of trial and error. So for my blog today, I'm detailing my four favorite pieces of unconventional winter gear:

Camelbak vest: Preventing water from freezing is one of the toughest and thus widely-debated problems in winter recreation. Everyone has their own methods, and I've tried a lot of them — from bottles in insulated pouches to wrapping a hydration tube with aluminum insulation from Home Depot. None of these methods worked in the long term. Last year, I purchased a Camelbak Shredbak vest and removed the outer shell, turning it to a light vest with an integrated two-liter bladder. The vest is better than a backpack, because it fits snuggly against my back and there's no risk of chaffing. The hose initially came wrapped in a neoprene sleeve, which I promptly removed. I think those hose sleeves are worse than useless. They only actually insulate down to about 29 degrees, and after that they block access when ice eventually builds up somewhere inside the hose. At least with a naked hose, I can just stick the ice-blocked section in my mouth until it thaws out. I have actually successfully done this in the past with a completely frozen tube and valve. It took a while, but it was worth it.

I wear the vest over my base layer and pile any insulation layers I'm wearing over it, then thread the tube beneath one arm and up through the vest so it rests firmly against my collarbone. This way, the valve is easily accessible, even with mittens, but still well-protected from the cold. Last month in Alaska, even when we were outside for nine hours in minus 30 degrees, I had no issues with ice building up in the valve or tube. In fact, the water only cooled down to a tepid 60 degrees or so, which tasted wonderful (drinking ice water when it's extremely cold outside is about as fun as choking down hot coffee in 100-degree heat.) Two liters is plenty of volume for the Susitna 100, which has checkpoints about every twenty miles. The only drawback to this system is that I have to remove all of my insulation layers and the vest to refill the bladder. But in the case of going inside a race checkpoint, I usually do this anyway.

Sierra Designs Gnar skirt
Down skirt: During my final leg in the 2008 Iditarod, while riding my bike from Nikolai to McGrath, I got what I describe as "butt frostbite." It wasn't actually frostbite, but it was a crescent-shaped white blister surrounded by windburned skin just above my cheeks, caused by exposure to minus 20 degree temperatures and a 35 mph tailwind. When I was planning out my gear for that trip, I never considered the possibility that my butt was an at-risk region. In fact, butts are quite susceptible to the cold — if you're a woman.

It's a fact of nature: Women are built to carry more body fat than men, and this fat is concentrated in specific regions of our bodies such as butts, thighs, upper arms, and breasts. Fat is an insulator, but it doesn't insulate itself. When core temperatures drop, our body constricts blood flow to extraneous tissue — in this case, the junk in the trunk. And because fat doesn't generate its own heat the way muscles do, no amount of movement is going to warm it until blood flow returns to normal. Butts that get cold, stay cold. (Note: This is not a scientific explanation, just a theory.) But either way, just like fingers and toes, these parts need extra protection in order to stay warm when the body gets all stingy with heat distribution. Enter the down skirt.

I was not a convert until recently. But it makes so much sense. It snaps around your pants for easy application outdoors, and provides just the right amount of insulation exactly where you need it, while still allowing plenty of room for moisture wicking and movement. I have only used it running, but I believe the shorter skirts would be equally useful on a bike.

Fleece balaclava: This is perhaps the oldest piece of gear I own. I purchased it for snowboarding back in 1997 and inexplicably have not lost it yet. Because it's so old, I couldn't tell you the manufacturer or model, but out of all of the headgear I have tried, this piece remains my favorite. The important features of this particular balaclava are thick polar fleece, a loose fit so it can slide over hats and thinner balaclavas, and an adjustable face piece. I dislike neoprene masks because they're so constrictive, despise wearing tight balaclavas over my face because it's like breathing through a wet rag, and haven't tried any of those fancy air-circulation face masks. But why would I, when the simple solution works? The loose-fitting face piece creates a warm pocket that recirculates my breath and allows me to consistently breathe warmed air no matter how cold it is outside. The warmed air flows upward, which keeps my facial skin, nose and eyes warm. In extreme cold, the drawback is ice buildup. However, because the balaclava is made out of fleece, ice buildup doesn't seem to compromise its insulation value at all. The ice-lashes and snow-brows are annoying, and this system does cause goggles to fog to the point of uselessness. In windy conditions, I have no choice but to switch to goggles and a neoprene face mask.

VaprThrm high-rise sock

Vapor barrier socks: The concept of vapor barrier is simple — conserve heat by blocking evaporative heat loss. A completely non-breathable fabric creates a kind of micro-climate for the body part it's wrapped around, trapping moisture and heat in the thin layer of air between the fabric and skin. The jury is still out on how well vapor barrier systems work for jackets and pants, but I love my vapor barrier socks. I use the RBH Designs insulated sock on top of a pair of moisture-wicking Drymax socks and a pair of fleece socks. I believe the Drymax socks hold moisture away from my skin, the fleece both insulates and wicks moisture, and the vapor barrier contains moisture and heat so ice can't build up inside my Gortex shoes. I have no idea if that's what's really happening, but consider this: I finished the Susitna 100 last year, and trekked 90 miles in three days this year using this system without a single blister or cold feet. And I've had frostbite in the past, which makes my toes especially susceptible to the cold. So I think I'll stick with this system.

So there you have it, four pieces of gear that I may never give up (of course, I'm always waiting for something better to come along.) And just in case this post made you feel overly chilled, I have more photos from my mountain bike ride today:

Picking up speed on the Steven's Creek Canyon trail.
Ah, January. 


  1. "Butt-Frostbite" Rather interesting topic and a good remedy indeed. I'm still wondering how the bike application would work;)

  2. I think I'd call that "frostbutt" :)

  3. I'm a convert with the VB. I rec'd the RBH "jacket" for Xmas and it's incredible at the extremely cold temps.

  4. I expect an insulated kilt for men soon. Less to warm the junk in the trunk than the junk in the front.

    Y'know, "just like fingers and toes need extra protection"

    Buy the Kwilt, gentlemen, if you care about future generations.

    And don't forget the 750 loft goretex windstopper sporran.

  5. This makes me nostalgic for my childhood in Fairbanks and relieved that I don't have to get my own kids layered up for outside.

    But I bought the most awesome balaclava earlier this year. Not that I need it in Virginia.

  6. Great post Jill! I use plenty of these ideas in Juneau even though it's not nearly as cold as up north. I definitely could have used a fleece balaclava last week and I'm dying to try a puffy skirt for my perpetually cold butt.

  7. Quick question: Does the camelbak vest bounce around when you run? Is there a big comfort difference between that and the Nathan vest?

  8. I hear you on the cold butt thing. I also get chilled on my torso area between my bust and navel.

  9. Jill, How much are you over-sizing your footware to wear that sock combination? 2 sizes maybe? Thanks.

  10. Alligator, I have a similar Camelback vest and I've never seen a similar Nathan vest. The Nathan and UD ones are more like backpacks. This is literally (my PowderBak is anyhow) like a tight mesh vest and the bladder is right against your baselayer. Mine doesn't bounce at all.

    I love my down (Skhoop) skirt. Yay down skirts!

  11. Anon — My winter shoes are a women's size 10 and I normally wear a women's 8.5. The extra 1.5 seems just about perfect.

    Alligator — what Danni said. I think the Shredbak and Powderbak are the same material. It essentially presses the bladder against your back so there's no empty space between your skin (or thin base layer) and the bladder, which I believe also helps keep the water warm. The more layers between you (the source of heat) and the water, the more exposed it is to the elements and possibility of freezing.

  12. Jill and Danni thanks for your responses! I was able to find the Camelbak for $20 online so I figured I'd give it a shot. I'm hoping it will be comfortable enough for warm-weather running also. I like to carry water but I don't like the feeling of a bouncy backpack when I'm running (or hiking for that matter). Anyway great reviews Jill, thanks again!


Feedback is always appreciated!